Queensland Nurses on the SS Vyner Brooke
When the SS Vyner Brooke sailed out of Singapore on the evening of 12 February 1942, she was evacuating the last 65 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) plus approximately 165 other passengers (patients, women and children). While the Wah Sui and Empress Star, which embarked prior to the SS Vyner Brooke, made it to Australia with the other 65 nurses who had been in Singapore this last group would not be so lucky.
By the morning of 14 February, the Vyner Brooke was approaching Bangka Strait, along the coast of Sumatra, when it was sighted by the Japanese and bombed and strafed by nine Japanese aircraft. After being hit by three bombs she sank in 20 minutes (one of 40 ships sunk by Japanese aircraft approaching Bangka Strait that day).
Of the 65 nurses on board when the ship sank eleven were from Queensland and three died soon after this tragedy.
Gladys Myrtle McDonald, an only child, was 33 when she lost hold of the life raft she’d been clinging to and slipped under the water and drowned. She would be one of the 12 nurses who died during the bombing or in the water.
Esther Sarah Jean Stewart from Brisbane (aged 38) and Mona Margaret Anderson Tait from Booval (aged 27) made it ashore to Radji Beach, where the survivors lit a bonfire as a beacon for those still at sea. Twenty-one of the twenty-two nurses in this group plus all the military and civilian men and wounded on stretchers would be massacred by a group of 20 Japanese soldiers. Sister Vivian Bullwinkel was wounded but survived to tell this dreadful story. She told Esther Stewart’s mother that her daughter’s final words were: “Girls, take it; don’t squeal!”
The other eight Queenslanders, who survived the sinking, landed elsewhere on Bangka Island. They also surrendered to the Japanese and became prisoners of war for the next three and a half years.
Soon after surrendering the nurses were moved from Bangka Island to Sumatra, where they stayed for over two and a half years. They were moved back to Bangka Island in October 1944 to a camp that was already housing around 550 women and 150 children. Malaria was an acute problem there and by February 1945, 31 of the 32 nurses had it. Having survived three years as POWs eight nurses would die between February and August 1945.
Pauline Blanch Hempstead from Graceville would die in the Bangka camp on 19 March 1945 from disease and malnutrition at the age of 36.
The nurses would endure one more move back to a rubber plantation in Sumatra in May 1945. It was here 41-year-old Pearl Beatrice Mittelheuser from Bundaberg would succumb to starvation on 18 August, just days after the Japanese surrender and a day before the camp commandant handed out Red Cross parcels he’d been hoarding.
Six Queensland nurses made it through and were evacuated on 11 September 1945. After a stay in hospital in Singapore they would finally embark for Australia on 5 October aboard the Manunda.
Violet Irene McElnea who would have been celebrating her 38th birthday as the Vyner Brooke left Singapore in 1942, passed away of a heart attack, unmarried, in 1959 at Chatswood, New South Wales aged 55. She was the first of the surviving Vyner Brooke nurses to die.
Eileen Mary Ita Short passed away, unmarried, aged 71 years, on 25 April 1975 in Toowoomba, Queensland.
Valerie (Val) Elizabeth Smith from Cairns was mentioned in despatches in 1947 for services rendered while a POW. She passed away on 7 June 1995, aged 83.
Joyce (Tweedie) Tweddell was born in Brisbane and went to Petrie Terrace State School and Brisbane State High school. She studied nursing when she turned 18 and was working at Brisbane General Hospital (RBH) prior to joining the AANS in January 1941. After her years as a POW, she spent nearly eight months in the Margate Convalescent Home upon her return to Australia in October 1945. Returning to work as a nurse she was employed by the Brisbane General Hospital as second in charge of radiography. She remained at the RBH until she retired in 1979 as Queensland’s Chief Radiographer. In 1993 Joyce was part of the group of seven survivors who returned to Bangka to dedicate a memorial on Radji Beach. The Joyce Tweddell Building at RBH honours her lifelong dedication to nursing and radiography. Joyce died in Caloundra in 1995, aged 79.
Sylvia Jesse Mimmi Muir married fellow ex POW Collin McGregor after the war. They first met when she was nursing in Malaysia in 1941. Although they married in Brisbane, they operated a dairy farm in Bega and raised their three sons there. Sylvia returned to Brisbane after Collin’s death and remained here until her death in 1996, aged 80.
Cecilia May Delforce was also mentioned in Despatches in 1947 for her service while a POW. After the war, in 1946, she married a fellow POW, Allen McPhee. They raised their two sons in Wollongong before retiring to Broadbeach Waters at the Gold Coast. She was the last of the Vyner Brooke survivors when she died in 2011 at the age of 98. She asked that no flowers be placed on her grave as her friends who died in 1942 had had no flowers.
These brave and dedicated women experienced unbelievable wartime trauma and deprivation. They lost good friends and colleagues while battling disease and starvation. However, their close bonds and sense of humour helped sustain them.
We honour them by remembering their bravery and sacrifice.